St. George — On April 2, Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced the administration's final wave of new schools: 78 of them will open in September 2014—after the mayor leaves office—including transfer high schools, 26 charter schools, and seven career and technical education (CTE) high schools.

The schools may be new, but the concepts that underpin them are not. CTE high schools—formerly known as "vocational tech"—predate Bloomberg by decades. In the ideal world, CTE schools prepare students for "career-track employment at family-supporting wages in high-demand industries," according to the DOE. In the real world, however, many CTE schools struggle mightily with core issues like attendance and basic achievement, are persistently dunned for flabby rigor and graduate—on average—fewer students than traditional public schools.

Others face uniquely daunting challenges, like Grace Dodge CTE high school, where one in four students is the parent of a baby or young child. Dodge was lauded as a CTE model school in 2008, but in 2012 was told to stop accepting new students. It will close for good in 2015, one of over 150 school closures during the mayor's three terms. Another CTE high school, the High School for Graphic Communication Arts in Manhattan, is on the chopping block this year. A third, Alfred E. Smith in the Bronx, only escaped closure last year because a court order forced the DOE to keep it open.

Yet some of those older, established CTE schools give students an important edge in the hyper-competitive employment market. Aviation High School in Queens—a large, academically selective CTE school—famously graduates almost 90 percent of its class, many of whom go on to work (at starting salaries of $47,000, by some accounts) or to pursue post-secondary education in college or specialized industry. Transit Tech in East New York funnels grads into the MTA.

And in the St. George neighborhood on Staten Island's North Shore, Ralph McKee High School, a school of about 700 students sited cater-corner to hulking, 2,500-strong Curtis High School, sends its graduates into the world with skills that translate into good jobs, in the construction trades and the automotive industry, for example. McKee's success in preparing students for life after high school is reflected in its high college- and career-readiness score on the 2011-12 progress reports; its mark of 8.3 (out of 10) makes McKee the highest-scoring CTE high school in the city.

Opportunity knocking

For a student like Domenick Caracappa, a slender senior with dark eyes and a barbershop-sharp haircut, studying graphics at McKee is a hopeful ticket to the Fashion Institute of Technology, and to a longed-for life in Manhattan, the glittering Oz that he likes to explore on the weekends with friends. “My grandma chose McKee for me, to do architecture," he says, "but I wanted to do graphics. That's the class I look forward to each day.” Domenick and his older brother live with his grandparents, who've been saving for college for him longer than he can remember. He'll be the first in his family to go.

For Elon James, the sinewy co-captain of McKee's track team, intensive pre-engineering training has brought him real-world experience and a fair amount of pocket money, in the form of paid summer internships with Turner Construction—and, he hopes, access to a college education that will help him achieve his dream of becoming an FBI agent.

The pre-engineering students are among the top academic achievers at McKee; most, like Elon, are in honors classes. Elon says he jokes with McKee students in the construction trades, who can apprentice into the unions when they graduate, "Oh, you'll be working for me one day!"

For students like Norberto "Bert" Martinez, a burly senior with a fringe of brown hair and dark, serious eyes, McKee is a lifeline between high school and a financially solid, independent life.

Bert chose McKee not for academics but for the shops. "I'm not very good at reading or writing but I've always been good with my hands," he tells City Limits. He will graduate this June with state certification in auto mechanics and plans to study diesel systems at a trade school in New Jersey, then head into the marketplace.

"I've gotten a lot of opportunities here," he says "I went from being a kid who couldn't read or write to honors classes." As a younger student, Bert was given an IEP—an individualized education plan, designed to support special-needs students. "I had an IEP through elementary school until the 11th grade," he says. "But I never realized, I didn't need it. Neither did my mom or the resource room teacher. It wasn't doing me anything good."

Before Sandy, Bert wanted to work for the Sanitation Department. But a friend who works on backup generators made "ridiculous money" after the storm, Bert says, spurring his focus on diesel. "I can go into the military, into transportation, into shipping," he adds, ticking off his opportunities on fingertips traced black with grease. "Without diesel, New York would crumble. Mack trucks are all diesel; boats, trains, all run on diesel." With the basics he's mastered at McKee and the advanced skills he hopes to gain next year, Bert says, "I can go to the MTA or to NJ Transit."

Bert's reading leapt forward in parallel with his shop work; when he needed to read to understand the projects at hand, he discovered skills he didn't know he possessed. Like any muscle, regular use built strength: He got better at reading, found it more satisfying, and kept reading, because it helped him. It directly affected his life and his learning. The same for math. Once Bert found his focus, he learned he had resources that hadn't been tapped—and he figured out how to use them.

DOE plans meet fiscal reality

Even as statewide and national momentum coalesced around the goal of higher achievement in traditional academics, the city's Department of Education sought to reform and reinvigorate their CTE high schools, convening a blue-ribbon commission—headed by former mayor David Dinkins and captain of industry Sy Sternberg, then-chairman and CEO of Met Life—that, after six months' study, issued a 200-page report.

The report, released to great public fanfare just ahead of 2008 economic collapse, found that "the promise of CTE … has not yet been fully realized." It cited issues of negative public perceptions of "vo-tech" as a track for the academically untalented, "uneven" performance, and limited innovation.